Published: 06:40 GMT, 19 March 2023 | Updated: 09:03 GMT, 19 March 2023
Vladimir Putin has made a defiant visit to Mariupol where he brazenly praised ‘reconstruction’ works of the city which he bombed to a shell of its former self, it was reported today.
It is the Russian president’s first trip to the Ukrainian territory, which Moscow illegally annexed in September, since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict in February last year.
The reported visit comes a day after he traveled to Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation, and in the wake of the International Criminal Court issuing an arrest warrant for the Russian leader accusing him of war crimes.
Putin arrived in Mariupol by helicopter and then drove himself around the city’s ‘memorial sites,’ concert hall and coastline, the Russian reports said, without specifying exactly when the visit took place. They said Putin also met with local residents in the city’s Nevskyi district.
Speaking to the state RIA agency Sunday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnulin made clear that Russia was in Mariupol to stay. He said the government hoped to finish the reconstruction of its blasted downtown by the end of the year.
The Kremlin claimed Putin met with grateful Mariupol citizens and discussed reconstruction works in the city
The dictator was also seen driving through the streets of occupied Ukrainian territory
‘People have started to return. When they saw that reconstruction is under way, people started actively returning,’ Khusnulin told RIA.
When Moscow fully captured the city in May, an estimated 100,000 people remained out of a prewar population of 450,000. Many were trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. Relentless bombardment left rows upon rows of shattered or hollowed-out buildings.
Mariupol’s plight first came into focus with a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital on March 9 last year, less than two weeks after Russian troops moved into Ukraine.
A week later, about 300 people were reported killed in the bombing of a theatre that was serving as the city’s largest bomb shelter.
Evidence obtained by the AP last spring suggested that the real death toll could be closer to 600.
A small group of Ukrainian fighters held out for 83 days in the sprawling Azovstal steel works in eastern Mariupol before surrendering, their dogged defense tying down Russian forces and coming to symbolize Ukrainian tenacity in the face of Moscow’s aggression.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a move that most of the world denounced as illegal, and moved on last September to officially claim four regions in Ukraine’s south and east as Russian territory, following referendums that Kyiv and the West described as a sham.
Russia besieged Mariupol at the start of its offensive last year, destroying the Azovstal steel works, the last holdout of Ukrainian forces in the city.
According to state news agency TASS on Sunday, Putin flew to Mariupol by helicopter on Saturday and took a tour of the city.
But the visit has been met with skepticism amid claims Putin has been using a body double on recent trips and media appearances to hide his ill-health.
Mariupol’s theatre was destroyed in 2022 while several thousand people were sheltering inside
Putin visited a 200-seat theatre complex while in Mariupol, video shows – the same theatre he destroyed while women and children sheltered inside
This satellite image illustrates what the Mariupol theatre looked like before it was reduced to rubble by Russian shelling
Putin condemned attacks on Mariupol last year, claiming they were from Ukrainian rebels, during the trip
He visited several sites and spoke with residents, and was presented with a report on the reconstruction work of the city.
But it is unclear who the people filmed are and whether they are genuine Ukrainian citizens – or when the visit actually took place.
Regardless of the timing of the visit, the release of the clips appear to be a brazen attempt to antagonise the west following the ICC’s arrest warrant issued this week – and the ninth anniversary of the illegal annexation of Crimea.
The Kremlin claimed he spoke with grateful Ukrainians, despite having launched a months-long campaign of relentless bombing on the city, virtually destroying the entire city.
Khusnullin claimed Ukrainian militants mined hospital wards with ordinary patients. In response, the Russian leader noted that ‘normal people would not do that.’
Mariupol was the scene of a major siege earlier in the conflict as soldiers, workers and citizens hid for three months in the Azov steel works in a network of underground tunnels.
It was also where Russians acting on Putin’s orders bombed a maternity wards with mothers and babies shortly after their illegal invasion.
Putin’s stop in Mariupol comes after his surprise visit to Crimea on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of the peninsula’s annexation.
It is the first time Putin is known to have entered Ukrainian territory captured by his forces since the invasion last February.
The brazen move is a new look for Putin, who has so far avoided getting anywhere near to front lines.
Only Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is said to have visited the Donbas prior to Putin.
The 70-year-old flew in by helicopter after visiting Crimea, which he annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
During his visit he went to a Mariupol theatre destroyed by Russian bombs last year. It is thought up to 600 civilians were killed in the attack.
They had painted a sign on the ground telling Russian planes there were children inside the building.
New satellite images show the collapsed remains of Mariupol theatre which was sheltering hundreds of children and their families before being levelled in a Russian airstrike
The helpless casualties were yesterday forced to spend a third night entombed in the basement of the destroyed Drama Theatre which was hit by Vladimir Putin’s forces on Wednesday
Putin’s soldiers bombed a maternity hospital in Mariupol in March 2022 – and during his visit, said to be on Saturday, blamed ‘Ukrainian militants’
The maternity and children’s hospital shortly after it was struck by bombs
Putin drove along the streets of Mariupol as his vice-premier Marat Khusnullin pointed to repair work carried out by the Russians in footage from defence ministry-owned channel Zvezda.
During the lengthy clip, only the back of his head was visible, prompting speculation it may have been a body double.
‘As you can see we have more or less repaired the roads,’ said Khusnullin, amid claims that much taxpayers’ cash earmarked for Mariupol has been stolen.
‘Good ones,’ replied Putin.
Yet it was pitch black so hard to see anything.
The deputy premier said: ‘You will see on your left a good new traffic light, and a garden. We have started public transport.
‘110 buses are working and if all is well we want to start the first trams by the summer.
‘Tram lines are being repaired, we have trams.’
In a separate clip he was seen talking to residents of the city, asking them whether they liked buildings the Russians claim to have built for them. Only a side-on view of the leader was visible.
Doubt has been cast on the validity of the Kremlin’s claims given Mariupol was one of the worst-hit cities in Putin’s illegal invasion
Fighting is currently concentrated in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine
Putin’s surprise visit to Crimea was his first to the peninsula since he sent troops to Ukraine
Russian strikes killed two people and wounded 10 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk on Saturday, a regional governor said, accusing Moscow of using cluster bombs in the attack.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of Donetsk region – where Kramatorsk is located – said on his official Telegram channel that Russian forces had targeted a park and damaged ‘a dozen residential buildings’, and fired ‘cluster munitions’.
‘They purposefully hit the city, trying to kill as many of its civilians as possible,’ Kyrylenko said.
AFP journalists on the ground heard around 10 explosions go off nearly simultaneously just before 4:00 pm (1400 GMT) and saw smoke above a park in the southern part of the city.
A woman died at the scene from her wounds, they saw.
Soon after, another round of explosions was heard in a neighbourhood two kilometres (one mile) away.
A taxi driver was seriously wounded in that blast.
‘She came to see me briefly. I told her goodbye, closed the door and a few seconds later, I heard the explosions,’ said Lena, 46. ‘I was lucky to be inside with my daughter when all this happened.’
Kramatorsk Mayor Oleksandr Goncharenko confirmed that two people had been killed by cluster bombs.
‘Russia continues to spread terror,’ he wrote in a Facebook post.
A UN treaty backed by most Western countries bans the use and transfer of cluster bombs, which spread dozens of tiny explosives, often posing a threat long after a conflict ends.
Russia and Ukraine have not signed the treaty and the United Nations has voiced alarm over Moscow’s alleged use of cluster munitions in populated areas since it invaded Ukraine last year.
The strikes marked the second time Kramatorsk was targeted in a week. On Tuesday, one person died and three people were wounded after a strike on residential buildings.
Kramatorsk is located in the eastern industrial region of Donetsk, parts of which, including its largest city, have been controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists since 2014.
In April 2022, a missile strike killed around 60 people at the Kramatorsk train station, in one of the deadliest attacks targeting civilians.
Moscow has been seeking to capture the entire region after declaring it part of Russia last year.
Russian state TV showed him visiting the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol, accompanied by the local Moscow-appointed governor Mikhail Razvozhayev.
Razvozhayev said on the messaging app Telegram that Putin had been expected to take part in the opening of a children’s art school by video link.
‘But Vladimir Vladimirovich came in person. Himself. Behind the wheel. Because on such a historic day, the president is always with Sevastopol and the people of Sevastopol,’ he said.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 following a referendum that was not recognised by Kyiv or the international community.
Addressing the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said he aimed to take back Crimea, though Moscow has refused to include it in possible peace talks.
Putin’s visit came after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him on Friday over the ‘deportation’ of Ukrainian children.
The Hague-based court said it had also issued a warrant against Maria Lvova-Belova, 38, Russia’s presidential commissioner for children’s rights, on similar charges.
Kyiv says more than 16,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia since the start of the conflict in February 2022, many of them placed in institutions and foster homes.
ICC prosecutor Karim Khan told AFP that Putin was now liable for arrest if he set foot in any of the court’s more than 120 member states.
The 70-year-old Russian leader has not commented publicly on the warrant, but the Kremlin dismissed its validity as ‘void’ since Russia did not recognise the ICC’s jurisdiction.
The Hague-based court’s decision came ahead of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow on Monday to sign accords touted as ushering in a new era of ties.
China, a major Russian ally, has sought to position itself as a neutral party in the Ukraine conflict, urging Moscow and Kyiv to open negotiations.
But Western leaders have repeatedly criticised Beijing for failing to condemn Russia’s offensive, accusing it of providing Moscow with diplomatic cover for its campaign.
Putin is hoping China will give him both military and economic aid for his blitzed sanctions-hit and war-damaged economy.
The PR stunt also followed claims from his own supporters that unlike Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, Putin had been slow to visit the war zone.
Mariupol is currently far from the front line although it has been hit by recent car bombings.
TASS state news agency reported: ‘The president talked to residents of the Nevsky district and visited an apartment at an invitation from a family living there.’
The Kremlin said the vice-premier briefed Putin on ‘the construction of new residential districts, social and educational facilities, utility infrastructure and medical centres’.
Pro-Kremlin activists held protests in front of the US embassy in Moscow and other Western embassies Saturday
A leading political analyst Sergey Markov admitted that there were doubts it was actually Putin – and not a double – in Mariupol.
Insisting it WAS Putin, Markov said the visit had been arranged low-key with little visible security so as to ‘deceive NATO intelligence’.
But he acknowledged that ‘the Western media do not believe that Putin was in Mariupol, because in the short video Putin is only seen from behind, and says almost nothing. Well, let them not believe. We also do not believe the Western media.’
Rumours have swirled that on some recent visits a doppelgänger has pretended to be Putin.
Similar footage of Putin driving a Mercedes over the bombed Kerch Bridge linking annexed Crimea to Russia was also widely seen as a body double.
Separately, the dictator was seen at the Russian military control room in Rostov-on-Don with his top two commanders, General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, and General Sergei ‘Armageddon’ Surovikin, deputy chief.
The footage was evidently designed to show Putin – who has been the subject of poor health rumours – in charge of a united command.
The suited dictator strode upstairs and seemed to walk normally, while earlier footage in Sevastopol, Crimea showed him walking awkwardly.
Earlier Putin stripped Surovikin of command over the war, and handed it to Gerasimov.
‘The head of the state heard reports from Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and a number of military commanders,’ said a Kremlin statement.
He ‘examined the coastline of Mariupol in the area of the yacht club, the theatre building, [and] memorable places of the city’, reported Interfax.
Putin has previously visited the Rostov command post, which is not in the war zone.
In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the two sides had agreed to extend a deal that has allowed Ukraine, a major grain exporter, to resume exports after its Black Sea ports were blocked by Russian warships.
Cereal exports from Ukraine
But there was disagreement over the terms.
Ukraine’s infrastructure minister said the deal had been extended for 120 days, but a spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry said Moscow had agreed to a 60-day extension.
The deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations in July 2022 had allowed for the safe passage of exports, and had already been extended for 120 days in November.
The fighting is now concentrated in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine, particularly the city of Bakhmut.
Russian strikes hit the nearby city of Kramatorsk on Saturday, killing two people and wounding 10, said regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko, who accused Moscow of using cluster bombs in the attack.
AFP journalists in Kramatorsk heard around 10 explosions go off nearly simultaneously just before 4:00 pm local time (1400 GMT) and saw smoke rise above a park in the southern part of the city.
A woman died at the scene from her wounds, they saw.